Counterfactuals of the Civil War are always interesting to explore. What if this or that had or had not happened and how it would have changed the trajectory of the conflict can be interesting ways of exploring other possible histories.
One of the key participants of the war was Robert E. Lee. His command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was a key reason why the Civil War lasted as long as it did. But what if General Lee had never joined the Confederate cause? How would that have impacted the struggle?
In the spring of 1861 Robert E. Lee was a 54-year old colonel in command of the First Regiment of Cavalry. The son of Revolutionary War hero “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, he had graduated from West Point in the class of 1829. He had served all over the United States, initially in the Corps of Engineers and later in the Cavalry.
During the Mexican War, Lee had served as a staff officer for General Winfield Scott, a fellow Virginian. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and was promoted to brevet major. He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec and was wounded at the last. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855.
In October 1859, Lee was back in his home at Arlington, Virginia. His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis had died in 1857 leaving a rather messy estate. Custis was the step-grandson of George Washington. Lee took several leaves of absence from the army and became a planter and eventually straightened out the estate. Part of the estate resolution was the promised emancipation of the slaves.
When news of John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Lee was ordered by President James Buchanan to take command of detachments of militia, soldiers, and United States Marines, to suppress the uprising and arrest its leaders. Upon his arrival, Lee demanded the surrender of Brown. When he refused, Lee ordered the successful assault and capture of Brown and his men.
We know that Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis was a Unionist based on her letters. As the step-great granddaughter of one of the founders of the country she felt that the Union was inviolate. Lee attempted to follow Washington’s example in his personal and professional life.
Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as “revolution” and a betrayal of the efforts of the founders. Writing to his son William Fitzhugh, Lee stated, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” While he was not opposed in principle to secession, Lee wanted all peaceful ways of resolving the differences between North and South—such as the Crittenden Compromise—to be tried first, and was one of the few to foresee a long and difficult war.
In late March or early April, Lee had turned a command in the Confederate Army. On April 18th, Lee turned down an offer by presidential aide Francis P. Blair to command the defense of Washington D.C. as a major general, as he feared that the job might require him to invade the South. But what if after an agonizing several days of discussion and thought, he had decided to remain with the Union?
Let’s say that Robert E. Lee had accepted Lincoln’s offer of a top command. How would it have changed history? Robert E. Lee was one of the top combat engineers in the country. In fact, he had worked on many of the coastal forts along the Atlantic coastline.
His first objective would have been securing the capital. In the real world, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, another highly skilled engineer, had created a system of defenses around Washington unequaled in the 19th century. Lee would have made absolutely sure that northern Virginia was secure for the Union in order to have an area in Virginia to marshal troops.
But would Virginia have seceded if Lee had decided to stay with the Union? Robert E. Lee was a well-known Virginian from one of Virginia’s First Families. His wife was related to the first President of the Union. It is perfectly rational to believe that Virginia may have split in three parts with northern and western Virginia remaining with the Union.
Robert E. Lee’s greatest accomplishments came on the field of battle. Without Lee, the Southern Confederacy would have had Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard as their leading commanders in the Eastern Theater. First Manassas or Bull Run might have been a rout in the other direction.
There probably would not have been a Peninsula Campaign. After a Union victory at Manassas, Lee would have knifed his huge Army of the Potomac east to Richmond. Once the Confederate capital had fallen, the entire rebellion might have collapsed, especially with a Virginian commanding the Union troops.
But what about slavery? A quick Union victory would have meant that a wartime emancipation would not have happened. More than likely, Lincoln’s idea for gradual emancipation and resettlement outside of the United States would have come to fruition. The South would not have been devastated. Slave owners would have been compensated.
The American Civil War has always been the great dividing line in American history. The country was totally changed by four years of war. We went from a mostly rural country to one that became more urbanized. Farming was the major occupation before the war while manufacturing gradually took over the American economy.
With one stroke Robert E. Lee might have changed all of that.